January 24-30, 2007

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Mark O'Connor

Photograph by Jim McGuire
Bluegrass Classical: Mark O'Connor performed his 'Old Brass' concerto with Symphony Silicon Valley.

Good Feelings

Joseph Silverstein's stint at Symphony Silicon Valley was long on good feelings but short on new ideas

By Scott MacClelland

ON THE COMING vernal equinox, acclaimed violinist Joseph Silverstein turns 75. This éminence grise among American concertmasters loves to conduct. But on the evidence of his performance with Symphony Silicon Valley last Sunday, he isn't seeking a permanent podium position. Here were warm, generous readings of Beethoven's third Leonore overture and Dvorák's D Minor Symphony, true to their scores and utterly musical, but with no interpretive surprises.

The two works left one full of good feelings, satisfied that masterpieces like these are safe from the also-ran repertoire that, for all its value in establishing the primacy of the greats, still pales by comparison. (Whoever said music's supremacy among the arts stemmed from its ability to "take us by surprise" couldn't have been talking about that lamented second tier.)

But success like Silverstein's will inevitably be weighed against those younger maestros who still need to have something to say, some insight to be revealed, some new twist to an old tale. Fortunately, they are in the majority among Symphony Silicon Valley's ever-changing stable of conductors, and they include those older maestros who actually have more podium experience than Silverstein. And isn't that ultimately where the rubber meets the road? Like music itself, there are far more competent conductors than great ones. In the last five years, we've heard both kinds leading the symphony.

Dvorák's Symphony in D Minor opens with a potent syncopated motto that is repeated throughout the first movement. It consists of two short notes ahead of a longer one, as if taken from a folk dance, and is justified by how it is articulated. Is there a pause before the long note or not? Under Silverstein's leadership, that articulation continually changed, here sharply bitten, there paid no heed, even though it has proven significant for a great many other conductors and, one infers, for the composer himself. After all, it's details like this that set this simple Czech musician—as he described himself—apart.

Articulated phrasing distinguished Mark O'Connor's Old Brass, the sixth concerto by this bluegrass fiddler who knows all the violin tricks purveyed from Vivaldi to the present. In three more-or-less conventional movements, each lasting about 12 minutes, O'Connor gives an easygoing portrait of Appalachia's musical traditions dating at least from the 19th century. (According the program notes, Old Brass refers to a colonial term used in South Carolina to describe people of mixed African and Native American descent and, in later times, a plantation designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.)

Syncopations plus portamentos and infectious rhythms drove its seductive charms, punctuated, after a fugal episode in the final movement, by a solo cadenza that, for its eclecticism, could be described as multicultural. (In answer to an unrelated question during intermission, O'Connor spontaneously told me that he will attend the performances of his new symphony and a piano trio at the Cabrillo Festival this summer, and that Symphony Silicon Valley has also scheduled the symphony next season. To date, neither presenter has made any announcement about its next season.)

O'Connor made smooth work of his music, as did his orchestra of strings, winds and two horns. The orchestra also rose to the occasion in the Beethoven and Dvorák, with Jim Dooley taking a solo bow following his offstage trumpet solo in the Beethoven.

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